CEPA eprint 1558 (EVG-272)

The foundations of radical constructivism: An interview with Ernst von Glasersfeld

Cardellini L. & Glasersfeld E. von (2006) The foundations of radical constructivism: An interview with Ernst von Glasersfeld. Foundations of Chemistry 8: 177–187. Available at http://cepa.info/1558
Table of Contents
Constructivism rejects the metaphysical position that “truth”, and thus knowledge in science, can represent an “objective” reality, independent of the knower. It modifies the role of knowledge from “true” representation to functional viability. In this interview, Ernst von Glasersfeld, the leading proponent of Radical Constructivism underlines the inaccessibility of reality, and proposes his view that the function of cognition is adaptive, in the biological sense: the adaptation is the result of the elimination of all that is not adapted. There is no rational way of knowing anything outside the domain of our experience and we construct our world of experiences. In addition to these philosophical claims, the interviewee provides some personal insights; he also gives some suggestions about better teaching and problem solving. These are the aspects of constructivism that have had a major impact on instruction and have modified the manner many of us teach. The process of teaching as linguistic communication, he says, needs to change in a way to involve actively the students in the construction of their knowledge. Because knowledge is not a transferable commodity, learning is mainly identified with the activity of the construction of personal meaning. This interview also provides glimpses on von Glasersfeld’s life.
Liberato Cardellini: Why don’t we begin with a brief biography? How did you become fluent in four languages?
Ernst von Glasersfeld: I was born in Munich, 1917, of Austrian parents, and grew up in Northern Italy and Switzerland. Briefly studied mathematics in Zürich and Vienna and survived the 2nd World War as farmer in Ireland. Returned to Italy in 1946, worked as a journalist, and collaborated until 1961 in Ceccato’s Scuola Operativa Italiana (language analysis and machine translation). From 1962 to 1969 I directed a US-sponsored research project in computational linguistics. From 1970, I taught cognitive psychology at the University of Georgia, USA, and was nominated Professor Emeritus in 1987. At present I am a Research Associate at the Scientific Reasoning Research Institute, University of Massachusetts.
My parents frequently spoke English, especially when they wanted to talk about things I was not supposed to know. So I made it my business to learn English and when I began to say things in that language, my parents could not resist correcting me. By the time I was six, I was fluent in both languages. At that point we lived in Merano and I played with Italian children. At the age of ten I was sent to boarding school in Switzerland, where apart from German, we were taught French, Italian, and English. Having finished high school in Switzerland at eighteen, I spent a year in England and one in Paris before emigrating to Ireland.
LC: Who are your masters? Didn’t it all start with G. B. Vico?
EvG: My first philosophical readings were Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, Berkeley’s Commonplace Book, and Vico’s Scienza nuova – not the customary beginning at departments of philosophy.
LC: You learnt mainly by teaching yourself: your intellectual development is quite constructivist …
EvG: I continued reading philosophy because I was intrigued by the conceptual differences of the “realities” described by the languages I had been, and to some extent still was, living in during the years in Ireland. There, after Berkeley and Vico, I read Jeremy Bentham, Hans Vaihinger, and finally Kant.
LC: You have a great influence on education. Prof. von Glasersfeld, how can you explain your success?
EvG: I was a teaching professor in the Psychology Department of the University of Georgia, but much of my research was done in collaboration with Les Steffe at the Department of Mathematics Education (Steffe et al., 1983). The publications emanating from there are the source of our influence on education.
LC: What lines of contemporany scientific thought have led you and other philosophers to constructivistic conclusions? What are the aspects of Piaget’s theory that you found revolutionary?
EvG: I cannot speak for other philosophers. In my case it was the discrepancy of natural language worlds, my philosophical readings, and the teachings of Silvio Ceccato that led me to believe that the world we are experiencing is of our own making. Then, when I started to read Piaget, his constructivism confirmed my belief and gave me the vocabulary to express it. His revolutionary contention is that the purpose of “knowledge” is not to represent reality, but to provide our adaptation to it (von Glasersfeld, 1989).
LC: And now about constructivism: Why do some like it radical? What is the relationship between radical constructivism (RC) and the history of western philosophy? What is the scope of constructivism?
EvG: Like Piaget, I was not primarily interested in a learning theory. I wanted some kind of model that could show how we come to have what we call “knowledge”. That is why I speak of constructivism as a “theory of knowing” (von Glasersfeld, 1995a, b). In traditional philosophy, it is taken for granted that knowledge represents (i.e., in some way depicts) a reality that exists as such, independent of the knower. Thus, traditional philosophy has created a problem that it cannot solve, the problem of whether our knowledge is a TRUE representation of reality (von Glasersfeld, 2001). This problem cannot be solved, because we have no direct access to reality and therefore, cannot compare our knowledge to it. We can, as Berkeley said, compare only our ideas to other ideas: we can never compare our ideas to what, as realists claim, they represent.
Piaget’s suggestion of considering knowing and its products an adaptation avoids the traditional problem, because actions and ideas that are adapted to the world we live in do not represent that world, they merely fit into it. Although the pragmatists did not know it, Piaget’s suggestion is precisely what justifies their claim that “True is what works”. It is very difficult for traditional philosophers to give up the notion that, in some way, we must be able to find out what reality is really like. As there is no rational way, they escape into metaphysics. Constructivism has nothing to say about metaphysics or mysticism. It has nothing against them, it merely asserts the fact that there is no rational way of knowing anything outside the domain of our experience and that what we experience is constructed by us.
LC: Your claim that there is no rationally accessible, extraexperiential reality, is seen as epistemological antirealism (Matthews, 1994). What is your rebuttal?
EvG: This is one of the few things that Michael Matthews got right: philosophical realism comprises all schools of thought that claim that reality can be known; and constructivism is definitely anti-realist.
LC: If we replace truth by viability (or functional fit), how can we know that we know?
EvG: You have to adapt to the constructivist use of “knowing”. For us, the main part of “knowledge” is the repertoire of concepts, conceptual structures, and schemes of action that we judge to be viable, which means that, in a given context, we found them to do what we expected them to do.
LC: Some scientists see constructivism as being antiscientific. How can scientists accept the tenet that knowledge does not represent reality? Why is your model of construction of knowledge difficult to accept?
EvG: The people who deem constructivism to be antiscientific are those who have never thought about how science actually works. The history of science demonstrates very clearly that scientists use their concepts and theories only where they prove to be viable; and they check viability by means of experiments; and experiments are experiences that are controlled by a set of rules, so that they can be repeated by other scientists. Experiments do not come closer to an ontological reality than any other form of experience.
LC: Erwin Schrödinger wrote a strong statement: “Every man’s world picture is and always remains a construct of his mind and cannot be proved to have any other existence.” (Watzlawick, 1984). Nevertheless some of my chemistry colleagues will consider this interview as nonsense. Why does the debate about fundamental questions of philosophy of science not reach the very scientists that teach and push forward the frontiers of science?
EvG: Schrödinger is not an exception. All the great physicists of the 20th century have in one way or another made clear that they considered their theories to be models for the purpose of ordering and systematizing experience. They did not consider them descriptions of an observer-independent ontological reality.
The teachers you mention are not the scientists “who push forward the frontiers of science”. Most of them are still stuck in a Newtonian world that has a fixed structure of space and time because they have not yet adapted to Einstein’s relativity and the indeterminacy of quantum mechanics. By the way, I do not like the metaphor “pushing forward the frontiers of science”. It suggests that there is a growing domain of science where everything has been cleared up. This is not an adequate image. If string theory actually brings about the revolution it seems to promise, everyone who uses a model of the atom will have to reorganize his or her knowledge.
LC: In chemistry, many concepts (atom, molecule, bonds, the particle nature of matter, etc.) do not emerge from sensory experience. How can we help our students to develop an understanding that is in harmony with the model accepted by the experts?
EvG: To say that concepts “emerge” from sensory experience suggests that the experience contains the concepts. From my point of view this is never the case. We form concepts and then we try to fit experiences into them. This is so, even with simple sensory experiences such as color. Color experiences range from red to orange and to yellow (and so on), but there is nothing in them to tell us where orange ends and yellow begins. It is we who impose these concepts. Concepts such atom, molecule, and the others you mentioned are more complex because they are constructed by relating simpler concepts in specific ways, but they are still constructed by us.
LC: In problem solving students have to construct a correct solution. But how can one construct it if he or she does not know how to construct properly? What is the role of the teachers in teaching problem solving?
EvG: You are quite right when you say that students have to construct the solutions that solve the problems they are given, and they have to do it mostly by themselves (von Glasersfeld, 1995a, 1995b). You can, of course, lead them through the sequence of steps that bring about your solution of a given problem; and you can make them learn this sequence by heart. They will then be able to use your solution successfully whenever the problem situation is exactly the same. When the problem situation is somewhat different, they will fail, because they have never understood the mechanisms that underlie your solution. Rote learning does not lead to understanding.
Some years ago SRRI, our institute here, tested a number of 2nd-year physics students for their understanding of specific concepts in physics (mass, acceleration, inertia, etc.). They knew some formulas that contained symbols for these concepts and were able to recognize a few problem situations where one of the formulas could be successfully applied. They had passed all the physics tests during the previous year. Yet, with a little probing it became clear that their understanding of the concepts was insufficient and they did not really know how the concepts were supposed to work.
Understanding is much more likely to develop when students begin simply by trial and error. After a while they will become interested in why certain things work and others do not; and it is then that teachers can help to foster this interest which leads to understanding (von Glasersfeld, 1991).
LC: What if students make errors?
EvG: When students make what the teacher considers to be an error, the teacher should try to find out what train of thought led the student to make that statement. Very often RETRACING the steps will suffice to let the student see that a different answer is required. This, of course, takes time – but very soon the student will form the habit of reflecting on HOW he or she got the answer, and this will help to avoid future mistakes
LC: Some authors (Solomon, 1994; Osborne, 1996) contend that we are “Beyond Constructivism”. What do you think of Dick Lesh’s book “Beyond Constructivism”?
EvG: Anyone who reads Lesh’s book attentively will find that almost everything he says is fully compatible with constructivism and that he in no way wants to give up the constructivist approach. He focuses more on practical exercises, but the exercises he and his colleagues suggest are all based on the constructivist way of thinking.
LC: You are somehow critical about social constructivism. What do you think are the primary differences between radical and social constructivism?
EvG: My objection springs from the fact that most “social” constructivists and especially those who call themselves “constructionists” take society and the linguistic way of communicating for granted, as though they were ontological givens. From my point of view, society and language are no less our constructs than the chairs we sit on and the concepts we think with. Social psychologists should devote some time to the question on how the human individual comes to construct other humans and then society.
LC: What connections do you see between the form of constructivism commonly associated with your name and Kelly’s theory of personal constructs? What can we learn from Kelly’s theory that we cannot get from yours?
EvG: There is not much difference between Kelly’s and the constructivist way of thinking. The difference is that those who followed Piaget focused on the question of HOW concepts and conceptual structures can be made.
LC: Many constructivist teachers are very dedicated and care about their students. What qualities are important in a teacher and how much is enthusiasm important in teaching?
EvG: Enthusiasm for the subject matter to be taught is important, but the main qualities a teacher must have are patience, imagination, and the readiness to believe that students CAN think and to let them know it.
LC: The language-game (in the sense of Wittgenstein) of science does not need a uniquely accepted epistemology.[Note 1] In what can RC be an advantage for the development of science?
EvG: Language games, in Wittgenstein’s sense, are a way to learn the use of words; they do not provide explanatory models. The great physicists of the last century, as I said, relinquished realism. Their own work led them to the insight that science cannot explain a world beyond experience. It did not deter them from doing science because they saw that the value of science lies in making experience more orderly and manageable. Hence, the question to ask is not whether a scientific theory is true, but whether it works. This pragmatic constructivist principle has always been implicit in the way scientists proceeded, but the myth that science could reveal the nature of the real world tended to obscure it. Now that constructivism has been made explicit, it may help to make science teachers aware of the epistemological revolution.
LC: From your point of view, what is the scientist’s chief duty?
EvG: It is not up to me to tell scientists what they should do, but if they asked me I would say that they should primarily focus on the problems that face living creatures on this planet.
LC: From a realist position, science and faith seem incompatible; what happens within a constructivist epistemology?
EvG: Science and mysticism employ incompatible methods, but their results are not incompatible. Once it has been realized that science has nothing to say about a world that lies beyond rational experience, there need be no conflict because science and faith deal with totally different domains of experience. Cardinal Bellarmino made this quite clear in the advice he gave to Galileo before Galileo’s trial.
LC: To conclude, Ernst, let me ask you this: For many years you worked on your theory of knowing and you show a very deep and huge culture. Have you studied all your life?
EvG: I would not say that I have studied all my life. I have been very fortunate. Growing up with more than one language made me sceptical of the things which, people tell you, are unquestionably true. In Ireland two of my friends had been interested in epistemology for many years and suggested readings. (How else would I have come to read Bentham, Vaihinger, and others who do not figure in philosophy programs?) I continued to do a lot of reading, but my thinking was probably more profoundly influenced by what I learned from Silvio Ceccato and his colleagues and, later in the United States, from the early cyberneticians Heinz von Foerster, Gregory Bateson, Gordon Pask, and Warren McCulloch.
Before all that, I learned a lot from working as a ski teacher. Several times I brought an English group to the Rifugio Passo Sella, opposite my favorite Dolomite mountain, the Marmolada. When you are teaching skiing, the surroundings are nicer than in a classroom, but the problem is much the same. When people are put on skis the first time they are like students faced with mathematics: they are utterly helpless. Telling them what to do is useless because they are virtually paralyzed, You have to lead them very gently so that they can find out for themselves. In other words, it is only they who can construct their skiing.
Let me end by saying what I have often said: radical constructivism is not a dogma and it does not claim to be “true”. It is a way of thinking and you yourself have to find out whether it may be useful in your field of experience.
LC: Regardless of one’s own position on the constructivist theory of knowledge there is no doubt that you had a major impact on the debate about teaching and learning in recent years and you have made a difference in the way many people around the world teach and learn. As it was written, “I hold that there is a very broad and loose sense in which all of us these days are constructivists” (Phillips, 1995).
In answering the last question, you commented that: “… radical constructivism is not a dogma and it does not claim to be ‘true’. It is a way of thinking and you yourself have to find out whether it may be useful in your field of experience.” Much of the debate about the constructivist theory has lost sight of this point.
You raise an important point when you question whether those who deem constructivism to be anti-scientific have ever thought themselves about how science actually works. Equally important are the comments on the unsolved aspects of “social” constructivism. Finally, it was a pleasure that you commented on both the process of problem solving and attempts to teach problem solving, comments that are consistent with recent research on problem solving in chemistry (Bodner, 2003).
On behalf of the education community and the scholars interested in philosophy of science, I wish to thank you for sharing your insights and for the many years you spent in developing your theory of knowing.
The interviewer greatly appreciates and wishes to thank George M. Bodner of the Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN, Robert Nola of the University of Auckland, New Zealand, Wolff-Michael Roth of the University of Victoria, Canada, Eric Scerri of the UCLA, for the advice, critical comments and suggestions they gave for improving the questions and for the assistance during the interview.
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“the physicists had to pass through the purgatory of quantum theory which blows off all naive realism.” (Schwegler, 2001).
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